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Around the Jewish World Teens Teach Jewish Life in Belgrade, but Community Struggles to Survive

April 28, 2003
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In a small room above Belgrade’s only functioning synagogue, several Jewish teen- agers have gathered — as they do every week.

Here at weekly youth club meetings these enthusiastic teens pass on their knowledge about Jewish life to children only slightly younger than themselves.

“We teach the children about Jewish customs and traditions, and they are keen to learn. The atmosphere here is very different compared to their homes. And at the same time it is like a second home,” says student Dejan Djeric, one of the group leaders.

These classes are crucial for the future of the country’s Jewish life, say leaders of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia and Montenegro.

Assimilation and mixed marriages are the norm in a country with a Jewish population of just 3,200 — and, as federation secretary Davor Salom points out, that means young Serbian Jews are not being taught Jewish traditions at home by their families. That’s where their “second home,” the youth club, is playing a crucial role.

“Families do not have enough knowledge to conduct a proper home education so they rely on the community to organize a good educational system through the youth clubs, Hebrew classes and other activities,” says Salom. “But there is a new enthusiasm among young people about being Jewish and they are keen to be very involved with the youth organizations.”

“It is clear that they are not learning these things at home and need to be educated — even though I know a lot, I too still have so much to learn,” says Jelena Rudan, another group leader.

That enthusiasm among the young generation is key to the Jewish community. The exodus of many young Yugoslav Jews to Israel during the 1990s, sparked by the violent ethnic war and an economy that plummeted due to trade sanctions against former President’s Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, is still being felt one decade later.

“We are missing a whole generation in their 30s and 40s, and that’s a big problem for the community,” says Salom.

The president of the Belgrade-based federation, Aca Singer, knows that dilemma as well as anyone. He says he is torn between happiness that his daughter is happily settled in Israel and disappointment that she is not here to help build up the community’s future.

“It is understandable that many people emigrated because the economic situation was very bad and then we were bombed by NATO,” said Singer. “But it is very difficult for our community — we focused on the young generation and counted on them, but they left. Now there are very few young people here.”

Singer points out that at his age — 80 — it is time that a younger person took over his role.

But he complains that many of the young adults left behind are now too busy running their own companies or working in demanding jobs to get involved in community life. Under communism, he adds, “people had more time to be volunteers.”

The community is also struggling against apathy and what Salom describes as a “lack of devotion” among most of its members.

While the country’s young Jews feel their identity very strongly, the same can’t be said for the older generation.

Highlighting one of the community’s concerns, a recent national census registered only 1,100 residents as Jews, just one-third of the community’s official membership.

“There is a real problem in Serbia with Jews expressing their identity,” says Singer. “It hurts me very much that officially only 1,100 said that they were Jewish in the census. In Communist times, people were afraid to register as Jews, but I don’t know why people still don’t feel Jewish now, two decades later.”

Singer suggests that some people may have registered with the community to take advantage of food parcels and practical help as well as contacts for finding work.

There are other difficulties, too.

Salom points out that it is harder for each of the smaller splintered Jewish communities in the five nations that make up the former Yugoslavia to operate than when Yugoslavia was one country. “Before, we had a strong community of 7,000 Jews across Yugoslavia and we worked together on many projects. Now when we are split into much smaller communities it is harder to work separately on a smaller scale and to achieve that same quality,” he says.

Despite support from the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, the community relies on donations for more than half of its income and in the absence of any Holocaust restitution law is particularly cash-starved.

The community would like to do more — for example open a Jewish kindergarten and even a Jewish school and organize more cultural activities — but severe financial restrains prevent them.

“Our needs are five times as much as the total money that we receive,” Salom says.

Another problem the community faces is the demands on its rabbi, who not only serves nine Serbian communities but neighboring Macedonia, too.

“We want to continue to become more efficient. It is a big challenge but we are determined to become a stronger community within the next one or two years,” says Salom.

Against this struggle, community leaders are increasingly looking with optimism to the new wave of enthusiastic youths who nevertheless understand that nervousness of their parents and grandparents.

“We younger ones certainly don’t hide our Jewish identity but many older people are still fighting against prejudice,” says Reuben Mevorah, 17.

Djeric, 20, cites the example of his own grandmother, still nervous about expressing her Jewish identity. “She does not want to talk about the fact that she is Jewish at all; she is old-fashioned and still thinks that things are as they were under communism when Jews were not popular,” he says.

And it is clear that today’s young Jews are less reluctant to follow in the footsteps of those who emigrated to Israel a decade ago and that they hold out strong hope for continuing political and economic reform in their country.

“A lot of young people left in the 90s because there was no perspective here, but now the political situation is improving, and hopefully the economic one will too,” Djeric says.

Adds Mevorah: “I’m put off going to Israel because of the situation there. We have had so many wars and bombings here that I don’t want to go to another one.”

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